Stratton dropped a tea bag into a mug and filled it with boiling water from a kettle. He pulled up the sleeves of the tatty old rugby shirt he wore and scraped some diced carrots from a board into a crockpot of meat and other vegetables. As he added some of the water a sound outside caught his attention. He brushed a strand of dark hair from his face and looked through the window. A pheasant, flapping its wings to negotiate the tall hedgerow bordering the back of the garden, landed on the grass, which was coated in thick frost.

Stratton took a piece of bread and quietly unlocked the back door, opening it just enough to toss out the crust. It landed close to the bird which looked at it. The sudden chirp of a mobile phone in the kitchen spooked the pheasant into flight.

Stratton shrugged as he watched the bird crash over the hedge. ‘Sorry, mate. I tried,’ he muttered, closing the door. He picked up the phone from the breakfast table and pressed the receive button. ‘This is Stratton.’

‘Mike here.’

‘Morning, Sergeant Major,’ Stratton said, as he stirred the crockpot. ‘Don’t tell me that rubbish car of yours has broken down again and you need a lift.’

‘No. I’m at the office . . . and I need you in here asap.’

Stratton checked his watch. It was still early. ‘Okay.’

‘And put your supper in the fridge. You might be eating out tonight.’

The line went dead.

Stratton looked at the crockpot. Things had been fairly busy of late but despite the current cold weather he hoped he wasn’t going anywhere hot and sandy this time. He was growing tired of the Middle East and of Afghanistan in particular.

He unplugged the pot and placed it in the fridge. ‘Tomorrow, hopefully,’ he said to it.

Stratton walked into his bedroom and took off his shirt. His strong back bore several livid scars, a couple of them looking as though they’d been made by bullets. He pulled on a clean T-shirt followed by a thick fleece and walked to the hallway, taking a well-worn leather jacket off the coat hook. He paused at the front door to feel his pockets, checking that he had his phone, wallet and keys. Satisfied, he left the house.

Stratton slowed the open-top Jeep on the approach to the heavily guarded SBS camp in Hamworthy, near Poole on the Dorset coastline. At the entrance barrier he lowered the scarf wrapped around his face and handed the armed soldier his ID.

The soldier placed the card in an electronic reader and Stratton punched in a code. The man handed back the ID, raised the barrier and Stratton drove through the centre of the camp, the icy wind pulling at his tousled hair. The place was like a ghost town and had been pretty much since the invasion of Afghanistan. He turned into the headquarters car park to see half a dozen cars, just one of them covered in frost. He wasn’t the only early bird to arrive that morning. He climbed out and headed towards the main administration building, a squat two-storey modern structure. Half a dozen mud-caked men in shorts and T-shirts came running across the rugby field that stretched to the far perimeter of the camp.

‘Hey, Stratton!’ one of them called out on seeing him. ‘A minute, guys,’ the man said to the others who seemed happy to take a breather. He headed over to Stratton. ‘No workout today?’ he asked, out of breath, his face pink, steam rising from his head and powerful shoulders.

‘No time for such luxuries, Chaz old mate. Some